Writing in Fortune, Beth Kowitt gives us a look inside the Googler Uprising, wherein Google staff launched a string of internal reform movements, triggered first by the company's secret participation in an AI/drone warfare project for the Pentagon, then a secret attempt to build a censored/surveilling search engine for use in China, then the revelation that the company had secretly paid off an exec accused of sexual assault, to tune of $150m.
Participation in the protests rose and rose, peaking with a 20,000 googler worldwide walkout.
Kowitt frames the story as a somewhat inevitable result of Google's years of rhetoric about its transparency and responsiveness, as well as the company's "Don't Be Evil" motto, all of which gave the company a competitive edge in the white-hot techie labor market, which lets potential recruits shop around for more than a good financial package -- it lets them shop for a good ethical package, too.
The company is worth billions, and it is overseen by execs who are to some extent beholden to investors (if not for direct control over the company, which is held by the founders, then for the company's share-price, on which rests the vast bulk of the top execs' net worth), and these leaders have gradually and persistently pushed the company toward profitable work that is in the company's no-go zone of projects that the staff are unlikely to support and may actively oppose.
To balance out this tension, the company doubled down on secrecy, hiding its plans from the majority of employees. Inevitably, this backfired spectacularly, because any doubts that googlers had about whether the company was up to no good were erased by the fact that the company did the work in unprecedented secrecy: your boss isn't hiding his plans to outfit military drones with your company's AI code because he knows you'll really love the idea and doesn't want to spoil the surprise.
Now, the company is stuck: secrecy inevitably gets breached, and then the employees your company absolutely relies on and can't replace -- who can get a job across the street in a heartbeat -- start to quit or threaten to quit. The company is clearly unwilling to abandon high-return ventures even when they're terrible ethical propositions, so it's trying ever-worse tactics to let it keep its workforce and still betray the principles it promised them when they signed on.
First, the company illegally retaliated against the Uprising's key organizers (predictably, this sparked another walkout). More recently, googlers were warned in a company-wide memo that any attempts to dig up information on the company's illicit secret projects will be treated as firing offenses.
All of this is against the backdrop of waves of far-reaching, poorly constructed internet regulation around the world, passed on the strength of global resentment against the platforms and their monopolies. This is a hell of a moment for Big Tech's poster child to be publicly punishing its whistleblowers.
The company is obviously locked in a struggle between people who want to play a long game of burnishing Google's reputation as an ethical, open Big Tech player, and those who want to maximize their net worth and goose their annual bonuses, with the rank-and-file employees holding something like the balance of power, thanks to the tight tech labor market.
Google management has shown a willingness to listen to employees—and, in some cases, to change. The company says it had become over-reliant on TGIF and is now too big and sprawling to address every issue in the weekly one-hour meeting. It’s experimenting with adding different forums, like town halls focused on single topics, such as its recently published diversity report. “That was a realization that we came to as we started to see people raising their hands and saying, ‘My voice isn’t getting heard enough,’ ” says Fitzpatrick. And in an attempt to quell the increase in uncivil interactions on its internal platforms, its new “community guidelines” ban slurs and references to sex acts in any work document and require every online group to have a moderator, who must go through training. The company has also revamped internal reporting channels for issues like sexual harassment.
The Google organizers have taken to calling themselves the “entitled vocal majority,” after one employee publicly referred to them as the “entitled vocal minority.” No matter its size, there’s no denying the group has been impactful, playing a role in Google’s decision to not renew its contract for Project Maven. The company also has killed Dragonfly, saying there are no plans to launch search in China and that no work is being undertaken on such a project. Google has also pulled out of its sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference—it irked the company’s liberal employees to see the company’s logo next to the NRA’s—and disbanded its artificial intelligence ethics council after employees published an open letter contesting the appointment of the president of conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.
Google employees have started to flex their power beyond the company too. The one walkout demand Google met was doing away with forced arbitration, which required employees settle their disputes with the company behind closed doors. A group of Googlers has taken the fight to Washington, where it is pushing for legislation that would ban the practice. “Congresspeople take meetings with Google workers that they didn’t take with Chipotle workers,” says Vicki Tardif, an ontologist at Google, who has been with the company for eight years. If they’re able to help push something through, she says, “then we’ve done that greater good that we came to Google to do.”
Inside Google's Civil War [Beth Kowitt/Fortune]